Beer and Pavement

This is not a record review

Posted in Records by SM on August 17, 2010

So, I’ve been working on this post for a while. It’s not taking so long because I’m crafting it. Rather, it’s taking so long because I haven’t had time to work on it. In the meantime, there have been ideas for posts pass me by. So, I’m publishing this thing without hyperlinks, pics, or footnotes. Agree with me. Tell me where I’m wrong. Just don’t hold me to any standard set on this blog in previous posts.

Or at least this is not one I should have written weeks ago. I mean, record reviews are dead, right? No one reads them anymore. And when they’re written, they say very little about the music. Besides, we all just check the number or count the stars. Who has time to see if someone else thinks you should buy the record? Buy it or don’t. We don’t need record reviews and we sure as hell shouldn’t write them.

I used to buy records based on what was written in the back of a Rolling Stone or Spin. And when I bought the record without reading a single review, I’d sometimes read the reviewer’s take after the fact to see if at least one person heard it the way I did. I’d often find a disconnect and simply move on to another source of reviews that was closer to my own opinions and tastes. My infatuation with a magazine’s record reviews never lasted long. I eventually turned to online sources for reviews such as Pitchfork, but even that was short-lived.

And like assholes, we all started our own blogs where we pushed our own reviews onto the world. So, now, instead of less record reviews through which to sort, there are now thousands or even millions more. Plus, we had to consider our own reviews. What would my blog say about this band? What will my Facebook status say tomorrow about this record? The review has taken over.

But I don’t like to look at it that way.

The way I see it is that we now have a new platform to discuss art, especially music. No longer do I have to take it from a professional journalist or a punk at P4k. Hell, I don’t even have to blindly accept what a friend has to say in his/her blog post. At the least, I can look elsewhere or leave a comment. At the most, I can publish my own thoughts. Either way, what is created in this (cyber)space is a forum for discussion. No longer is it a one-way distribution. The exchange comes from multiple directions and is inclusive. Is this still a review? I don’t know, but it’s certainly more interesting.

I’m not going to review Arcade Fire’s newest record, The Suburbs. I’m not going to tell you why it’s great or where it falls short. In the end, you’ll make up your own mind. You’ll buy it or not. It doesn’t make any difference to me.

Besides, is it really possible to judge an Arcade Fire album fairly these days? With the president set by “Funeral”, it’s hard to imagine any album could measure up. When I saw Pitchfork’s review, reading just the score as I do these days, I was impressed with its showing of 8.6. Then I read this take and questioned the entire thing, album and review.

But who really cares?

When one plays The Suburbs, it is instantly clear that Win Butler and co. have written their own review. You see, the album isn’t literally about the suburbs. The suburbs are a metaphor for succeeding, for making it. There was a time when every working stiff’s dream was to make enough money to house his family in the ‘burbs. Sure, it was the pinnacle of nuclear familial status, but there was also a certain sense of selling out. Arcade Fire has to deal with that sort of quandary as well.

The opening title track lets the listener know right away that this is not your youth’s Arcade Fire. It’s a mature pop sound that either invites or turns you off. No matter, because this intro and the following tracks of synth-lite pop and Boss-centric dramatics is just the aesthetics, something Arcade Fire used to use like few others ever could. This pop sheen is just a fresh coat of paint or new siding to cover the charm of uncertainty below.

What Arcade Fire does with the content of their latest album is break down how said record will be perceived, how they will be perceived. The band has written the review for us. There’s no need to write our own or give any credence to Rolling Stone‘s take. The band tells you exactly what to make of The Suburbs throughout the record.

The death of anything punk, alternative, or indie is proclaimed over a pop piano playing of what can only be described as the band’s Billy Joel moment. The song breaks down the divisions of culture created in the 70’s at the hands of Sex Pistols and Stooges, longing for the time to just simply enjoy life and art without the inevitable judgment of hipsters and bloggers. This is the first time Arcade Fire rejects youth, something I never thought I’d hear them do.

The second track, “Ready to Start,” continues to toy with youthful cynicism and shows us a band that is both aware of what it’s doing and unconcerned with what you think of it. “Modern Man” asserts Arcade Fire’s rightful place in (modern) dad-rock, albeit rather cool dad-rock. You know, it’s touch being a middle-aged white dude, living in the suburbs and all that. [winking emoticon here] If anything, these two tracks hint at the themes and aesthetics to come.

A full rejection of hipsterdom comes next, but it’s more than what Pitchfork says it is. “Rococo” references a couple of important cultural moments. The first of these moments is also known as “late Baroque”, possibly a response to the band’s silly and somewhat lazy label of “Baroque pop” or simply an assertion of their artistic transition into something different. The original Rococo movement was a significant transition in European culture. The “other” Rococo was a band in the midst of the 70’s punk and progressive rock scenes. Because of either timing, energy, or a combination of the two, Rococo were often lumped in with the The Clash and Sex Pistols. However, they were very different from the punk rock of the day. Both of these meanings hint at something way deeper to the Arcade Fire sound than simply dissing some hipsters.

“Empty Room” certainly starts out like your typical Arcade Fire track with the strings and anthemic guitar feedback. The track celebrates the band’s breaking from their aesthetic shackles, proclaiming, “When I’m by myself, I can be myself,” a typical sentiment from anyone trying so hard to not be what everyone proclaims them to be.

In “City with No Children”, the band provides another take on the youthful perspective of their music. With the amount of information available to kids, their primary audience, the band sadly sees its listeners as cynics well before they should be. The result is that they can’t return to their unknown origins. There is no way this record will be judged on its own merit. There will always be the Arcade Fire mystique created by classic debuts, Pitchfork 10’s, and YouTube videos of the band playing among their fans.

Despite all the assertions of change in Win Butler’s voice, “Half Light I” assures the listener that this is still the same old Arcade Fire you’ve grown to love. They’re just expanding, taking on another appearance in the half light. The abrupt shift in aesthetics of The Suburbs is sort of like a terror twilight, that moment before the sun goes down when things just feel ominous. Interestingly, another reference to the Rococo period happens as the band sings, “They hide the ocean in a shell,” as artists of the time used shells as a popular motif for their designs.

In the track’s continuation, “Half Light II,” Arcade Fire contemplates their shift and development as a band. It’s a track that moves them forward as they grasp at whatever magic brought them together. Also, the aesthetics provided some huge 80’s synthesizers pull the listener to go along with this change.

“Suburban War” is where Arcade Fire lets you go your merry way in case you’ve given up on them at this point. They realize you’ve grown apart from them or vice versa. Here’s where the metaphor of the suburbs as success, particularly in the music industry, hit hardest as sides are chosen, divided by almost exclusively by musical tastes.

And as the band came to terms with this shift and the inevitable loss of a portion of their audience, they set out to write a record. “Month of May” takes the listener to the recording process. The band made their commitment to record this album in an uncompromising style. Cynicism and apathy are called out again (“The kids are all standing with their arms folded tight”) as the band’s groove pleads with the listener to simply move his body, enjoy the moment.

I’m not going to continue through the track list from here. This is beginning to resemble a review and that was not my intent. I think you get the point. Arcade Fire reviewed the album for you. It’s extremely meta. they’ve rejected all those who would turn their nose up at this incredible rock record.

Sure, the punk ethos is gone from the surface and the anthems are not as anthemic, but this album can stand on its own. It can stand up to your skepticism, your expectations.

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Posted in Live by SM on February 10, 2010

February 8, 2010 – Girls at The Blue Note, Columbia, MO

Rock shows. I used to see a lot of rock shows back in the day. I don’t see nearly as many these days. I certainly don’t see all the ones I should, but sometimes…sometimes I make my way out of the house for a rock show or two.

I used to also go to those shows to chase girls or possibly impress them1. Once, a girl (actually, very much a woman) licked my ear clean. (Well, a dude nearly did the same at another show2.) It was all girls, beer, and rock ‘n roll back in those days.

All three of those things have completely different meanings to me now. My partner is not a girl; she’s a woman, a womyn even. The only girl in my life is only 17 months old. The beer is certainly different these days as I have traded in swill for bourbon barrel-aged, dry-hopped, Brettanomyces, etc. as my bread-in-a-bottle. Some of that has to do with an increase in income, but it mostly has to do with the development of a finer palate.

The rock ‘n roll is the one thing that hasn’t changed. I still long for new records and to see a rock show that excites me. That may explain why I hit the Blue Note3 early for this one.

Upon entering, I could tell by the empty lobby that I had made a classic, newbie mistake of going to a show too early. The openers wouldn’t go on for 45 minutes. Since I am not too young and naive to make this mistake, the only reason for my unnecessary punctuality had to be my ever-advancing age4.

At one point, I was accosted by hipsters who somehow thought I was younger than I am. They wanted to talk about bands I had no time to hear. These hipsters couldn’t understand things like being a parent, an inability to stay out after 1 am, being married to a woman who didn’t like rock shows, Girls were a rock band, and Pavement5. So, I quickly slithered away, hoping that I didn’t have to explain myself to another dude in a scarf and 12 years my junior.

Bands started playing. Memphis’ Magic Kids opened. Throughout the set, I wondered why there were so many retro 50’s/60’s acts these days. Sure, they were peppy, even poppy, but it sort of turned old and a little played rather quickly. It was like I had heard this before…I know. My parents used to program the family car/van radio to all the oldies stations in Columbus and Dayton. I know every oldies song ever. That’s what these Magic Kids sounded like except without the legendary hit-makers in their midst. At least they were happy, very happy.

The originally scheduled openers Smith Western showed up way past their curfews6 to play your favorite teen grunge band hits. They were actually a breath of fresh air as they borrowed more from 20 years ago than 50. The venue swallowed them a bit, but I have to tip my hat to any band who shows up late after many hours on the road and plays without an ounce of fatigue. This band has promise.

At some point during SW’s set, I finally found a table of friends and acquaintances to keep me company and not make me feel so old7.

Girls came on and ripped through their set rather effortlessly. They played fresh and poppy at the start. The middle had the expected lull, but they finished strong. I was most appreciative of the two-song encore. It was way past my bedtime at this point.

Girls were good but not unexpected. Although it was a rock show I sought and received, it also contained the prerequisite forgettable openers, too green to be memorable. Those things were the same.

Maybe one of these days some band will help me remember what was like to be excited at a rock show again. That would be new and the same, but it would be welcome either way.

1It was mostly to see the rock show and ogle at young girls who were way out of my league. Ah, youth.
2OK, so the lick from the woman was unwanted. She asked for my last cigarette, which I produced as I had another pack in the car. She was a middle-aged groupie/photographer at a Guided By Voices show in Dayton, OH. The dude who licked my face was Eric Davidson of New Bomb Turks who were opening for…yes, you guessed it…Guided By Voices. However, this time it was the year prior at the Alrosa Villa in Columbus where Dime-Bag Darrell was shot.
3The Blue Note is the big rock show venue here in Columbia, MO, my current home.
4Which continues to advance in years come Thursday.
5A 23-year-old guy thought that Pavement was a super group of some sort. Well, if mean that they were super awesome and could conjure Satan in a young virgin’s womb by simply playing a single note, he would have been wrong. They aren’t a super group by any definition. They’re my favorite band and you may have heard something about a reunion tour this summer.
6Rumor had it they were all seven and that they had to wait for their mom to get back from the grocery to take them to the gig.
7They were all people who work with my wife and a spouse. They all get out more than I, so I’m not sure who made whom feel young.

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Emo is dead.

Posted in Records by SM on January 30, 2010

OK. So, I’m like eight or so years behind on this declaration, but at least I’m right.

Emo was actually pretty dead before it even started for me1. I came of age in the nineties when we had one, maybe two labels for what we listened to2. I blame electronica and the internets for the proliferation of unneeded and, frankly, unwanted music genres. I heard the term “emo” for the first time in the late nineties to describe anything from Modest Mouse to Jawbreaker to Sunny Day Real Estate3. I really didn’t care for the term as it simply divided up my record collection even more. Emo meant very little to me.

It meant even less when it hit MTV. Every other band was labeled as “emo” whether they were or not, sort of like what they did to grunge or hardcore back in the day4. I watched and cringed as it spiraled from a somewhat annoying musical aesthetic to a downright obnoxious fashion trend found on the racks at Hot Topic.

Anyway, one of the originators from the emo scene was Chicagoan post-rock outfit Joan of Arc5. They were as emo-tional as the next band, but they were way more arty and esoteric than those emos with stars in their eyes. They screamed and whispered, freaked out and quietly minimalized the effect, but somehow they pulled together coherent albums from bits and pieces of indie rock genius. Their songs may not have been complete, but their albums felt as album-like as anything anyone else has released in the last 15 years.

That said, Joan of Arc Presents: Don’t Mind Control is a cacophony of an album not likely to help you understand the conundrum that is Joan of Arc or the idea of emo any more than when you started reading this post. The brothers Kinsella enlisted the help of like 1036 Chicago musicians who have previously played in JoA to help them fill two pieces of circular vinyl with whatever they had lying around to make one of the more interesting compilations I’ve heard in a while7. The difference here is that it’s a select group of bands connected to one band, none of them very well-known outside of this circle.

Thankfully, this is not an emo record. If this is what emo could have become, I would like emo. Of course, this is not emo, so I still don’t like that. The album is good though. It’s as pleasant a surprise as the engrossing JoA project Presents Guitar Duets. Kinsellas hang with some cool and very talented musicians for reals. The gambit of possibilities are all here as folks play some garage rock, ambient, math rock, white boy soul, etc.

New8 kids on the dead emo block are Los Campesinos! with their scream/sing-songy, boy/girl, pop manifestos of sexuality and longing for some American rock ‘n roll. At first listen, one might not hear the emo on their sleeves, but as the record plays, you pick up on sudden start/stop action and some pretty gut-wrenching vocal performances. The largest difference between Los Campesinos! and most traditional emo bands is that they have a girl. That and one can tell by their lyrics that they may very well have had sex with one or more girls9. To boot, the instrumentation is large, varied, and intense.

This music is what emo would sound like with horns, a sense of humor, and some pop sensibilities. Emo could have evolved into Los Campesinos!, but it didn’t. They are certainly no emo band, but you can hear the connection. Either way, their latest LP Romance Is Boring is a fantastically big record, worthy of the path blazed by labelmates Broken Social Scene and Stars.

When a traditional band of a genre and youngin of similar ilk release records on the same day that do nothing but obliterate said genre, that genre is dead. Emo is dead. I don’t care how late I am with this declaration, but it’s dead as dead. No more wisps of jet-black hair over a distraught teenager’s right eye will be tolerated. No more screams over guitar anthems about the girl who left you at the mall. Nope. It’s time to move on. Joan of Arc and Los Campesinos! have. Won’t you join them?

1OK. Really, emo was never a viable genre and certainly hasn’t been around for a long, long time. I’m using it as my only way to connect these two seemingly different albums for a review. I realize that this is lame, but I wanted to write a blog post about the records that came in the mail and this is all I could think of.
2Alternative was the label for the early 90’s, but that became rather lame pretty quick. “Alternative to what?” The other label is the one I use today: indie. It’s maybe worse than alternative, but it has always sounded cooler and less corporate than alternative. I also realize that this also fails to mention math rock, post rock,, lo-fi, etc., etc. Just let me make my point.
3The funny thing is that Sunny Day Real Estate is generally considered the godfather of emo…That is until emo became not-cool. Since emo’s demise, no one ever mentions Sunny Day Real Estate as an emo band, but that’s what they were. There were probably the emo band.
4Sonic Youth is a perfect illustration of both of these misnomers. In the eighties, they were called a hardcore band. When grunge rolled around, they were lumped in with that lot due to their connections to Nirvana and Mudhoney. Sonic Youth is as much a hardcore or grunge band as they are an emo band.
5Actually, Joan of Arc rose from the ashes of emo-originators Cap’n Jazz. The other band that developed from Cap’n Jazz was The Promise Ring, an emo-trailblazer for sure.
6The number listed on the album’s packaging claims 41. They also included a poster of all the players. I didn’t count them, but I bet it’s closer to 41 than 103.
7Well, since last year’s brilliant Dark Was the Night was released. That was a great record.
8Not really that new.
9This is not to say that virginity means that they are not manly enough for more aggressive forms of music or that not having girlfriend makes them a lesser life form. What I’m getting at here is that emo lyrics often address the absence of a girl in the singer’s life. Just sayin’.

The Benefit of the Doubt

Posted in Records by SM on January 19, 2010

There are two ways one can earn benefit of the doubt status. The phrase means that one receives no judgment until all the evidence is in. This benefit is gained when previous experiences have been generally positive, leaving one to believe that current, questionable events are an anomaly or need time to sink in. This perk is earned either with with a short resume only displaying stellar production or a long history of mostly superior efforts.

Spoon has earned the right to always receive the benefit of the doubt. They suffered through a bad move to the majors in the 90’s only to emerge as one of the essential acts of the last decade. Their oeuvre is filled with way more good than bad. If Elvis Costello and Mick Jagger had a baby, they’d call it “Spoon.” That’s how highly I regard Spoon. I saw them play an atrociously boring set a few years back. Because of their history and past accomplishments, I gave Spoon another chance and was rewarded with a “best concert ever” kind of performance. Seriously.

So, when their latest effort, Transference, hit me in the face with made-up-on-the-spot, half-finished demos, I was taken aback. Then, I gave it another listen. Spoon, 16 years in, are still experimenting. They’re tinkering with their sound in an effort to grow and develop beyond “The Way We Get By.” The songs are different and minimalist. It’s an underwhelming record for sure, but when you hit “play” for a second go around, the groove hits you, makes you smile the only way a band like Spoon can. Then you remember why you gave Spoon the benefit of the doubt.

Vampire Weekend, on the other hand, deserves the benefit of the doubt solely based on 2008’s self-titled debut. Vampire Weekend was as triumphant an overly hyped debut as I can remember. They could have done a song-for-song response to Chinese Democracy featuring Miley Cyrus and Buckethead and it would have scored a 6.5 on Pitchfork. Instead, they opted to expand their sound and build on the Afro-pop that made them indie darlings for their follow-up. It’s as infectious and full of Google hits as the debut. Like Spoon, VW didn’t need the benefit of the doubt, but they’re earning it with each release.

Meh, we’ll see how long this Paul Simon-Afro-pop thing lasts to keep VW at the top of the so-called charts. Regardless, Spoon will be there to stay, always earning the benefit of the doubt, coming out on top in the end.

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